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Archaeology and the Politics of the Past

(Anthropology 46100)


This seminar explores the use of the past as a symbolic resource by modern communities and the social situa­tion and responsibilities of archae­olo­gists in this process.  This is an issue of fundamental importance to the historical development and definition of archaeology as well as to current debates about the nature and direction of archaeological practice, theory, and epistemology.  It is also an issue of major significance to the societies in which archaeologists operate and of which archaeology constitutes a field of knowledge production with far-reaching, and often unintended, consequences.


After a discussion of basic concepts and goals, the course begins by first trying to situate the particular problems of archaeological research within broader discussions of the sociology, history, and philosophy of science (or "science studies") and the philosophy of history.  Readings are designed to furnish the analytical tools necessary to examine questions concerning the ways in which archaeological practice (including the selection of appropriate research questions, the evaluation of knowledge claims, and funding for research and for the preservation of archae­o­logical sites) is affected by the institutional landscape of archaeology and the socio-political context of its disciplinary formation.  Case studies from a variety of contexts are then used to show how archae­ology has been involved in the politically charged con­struction of ethnic and re­gional identities and nationalist and colonialist mythologies in modern history, as well as in the commoditization and consumption of “heritage” within the current context of globalization and the expansion of neo-liberal capitalism. Current debates about the author­ity of com­peting interpreta­tions of archaeological evi­dence, the right to control public representations of the past, and the contested ownership of archaeological materials and sites are also dis­cussed. 


Obviously, the seminar grapples with deli­cate and important epistemological, metaphysical, and ethical issues that all archaeolo­gists must ultimately address.  However, it is a basic contention of the course that such issues cannot be resolved simply by recourse to philosophical reflection and argumentation.  Rather, archaeology must be understood not as a set of abstract theoretical propositions, but as a practice (or set of practices) embedded in particular socio-cultural contexts requiring careful historical and sociological analysis.  As the principal authoritative conduit to the distant past, it is crucial that archaeologists develop a critical reflexive awareness of their own sit­uation and their respon­sibilities in investigating and pre­senting the past in the midst of rival appeals to its use in authenticat­ing mod­ern collec­tive identities and to its potential marketability. This means that it is important to look simultaneously inward, trying to understand how the broader socio-political context of the discipline affects archaeological practice and knowledge production, and to look outward, trying to comprehend the effects of disciplinary practices on society at large.


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